Nicole Lizée takes us through her upcoming Sydney Festival with The Australian Art Orchestra

Canadian composer and turntablist Nicole Lizée comes to the Sydney Festival next year with an unmissable show alongside The Australian Art Orchestra. Already world-renowned for her fusion of pop, rave culture, cult cinema, psychedelia and turntablism, the Montreal artist has worked all over the globe to raptrous acclaim. Her Sydney Festival show Sex, Lynch and Video Games will see Lizée perform with the AAO (led by Peter Knight), exploring her responses to 80’s and 90’s screen culture.

We found a bit more about Lizée’s influences and what Australian fans can be expecting in January.

For those who haven’t seen one of your live performances, what can audiences expect in a nutshell?

A multimedia trip merging screen, electronic sound and live sound in total synchronisation. It’s a celebration of glitch, analogue, grooves, psychedelia, and the beauty of malfunction. The subject matter references certain fixations of mine: vintage video games, the karaoke phenomenon and David Lynch.

Your work touches on a bunch of themes including sex, David Lynch and video games. Have these been subjects you’ve used in the past individually, or have they come together especially for your show at City Recital Hall?

Video games have factored in my music for a long time. My father came home with the Atari 2600 one day in the late 70’s and those sounds and visuals became permanently implanted in my brain. I always knew I would ‘write for’ the console like an instrument – and about 12 years ago I wrote my first piece for the Atari 2600 and small chamber group.

A couple of years later, I wrote a piece for orchestra and late 1970’s/early 80’s arcade games. The piece in this concert, “8-Bit Urbex”, builds from the sounds and visuals from late 80s/early 90s games, focusing particularly on the depiction of cities in these games. Essentially ignoring the game play and looking for the ‘urbex’ – i.e. tunnels, alleyways, empty buildings, etc. Just for the inherent beauty and mysticism. Also, this year I’ve started development on an original game – creating both the sound and visuals.

Lynch has been an inspiration since the 1980s. In 2015 the time felt right to create an homage to him as part of my Criterion Collection – a series of études devoted to filmmakers that have made a major impact on me.

Let’s get back to your roots. What are some of your significant memories of 80’s and 90’s screen culture?

I spent much of the 80’s watching movies from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s on repeat. My father is an electronics salesman so when Betamax and VHS machines came on the market he also started getting into the video rental market. Which meant I could watch all of these films. I don’t remember too many newer films available initially – the majority were older: Hitchcock, Kubrick, Coppola, etc. I’m glad the circumstances of my small town upbringing meant that I was in a sense “trapped” with the work of these seminal film makers. If my only access to video tapes had been terrible films, it would have been tragic!

I remember seeing Alien when I was quite young (rewinding the chestburster scene until my younger brother started weeping), and also have a vivid memory of first seeing Rosemary’s Baby. Essentially, I watched a lot of horror, sci-fi and musicals. And any movies about the “dawning” of computers in mainstream culture, namely WarGames (which I still watch at least twice a year). I would fast forward to the best bits and watch repeatedly. I’m sure it explains a lot. All other screen time was spent watching MTV from ca. 1983-1991, when I left to go to university – but MTV was becoming much too slick by this time anyway. With all the time spent watching films and TV, I’m surprised I graduated from high school.

The 90’s for me were all about counterculture, experimentation and risk-taking in films. Having moved away from home (and the satellite dish) I no longer had access to MTV, but had more access to movie theatres and film festivals. Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were big game-changers. This is also when I really got into David Lynch and David Cronenberg, Lars von Trier, and Gus Van Sant. I saw Taxi Driver for the first time. I saw A Clockwork Orange for the first time. Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting changed my life. I couldn’t get enough of this movie and soundtrack.

In the late 90’s, I really started thinking deeply about film techniques, cinematography, editing – now I read almost exclusively about these topics. I just recently got a book called The Wrong House which includes the floor plans and architecture for the buildings designed and used in Hitchcock films. Amazing.

You’re teaming up with the Australian Art Orchestra for your show, led by composer/trumpeter Peter Knight. How was this partnership sparked?

We first worked together in 2014 in Toronto with a group called Soundstreams. They commissioned a new piece from me for the AAO merged with an orchestra from Toronto. We hit it off immediately and talked about doing something again. About a year later I was commissioned by Peter to write a new piece for the AAO to be premiered at the 2016 Metropolis Festival and “8-Bit Urbex” was born.

Peter and the AAO are such incredible artists to work with. There’s a no-holds-barred mentality, a deep passion for a wide range of music, mind blowing chops, a love of beer and late night dim sum – all the essentials.

Talk us through the machines and instruments you’ve incorporated into your eclectic soundscape for the show.

Karaoke tapes, turntables, game consoles, glitched film, omnichords, Tascam 4-tracks, reel-to-reels, stylophones. Many of the machines I use are huge and heavy (and some near extinction) so a lot of these are integrated into the soundtrack to facilitate travel. I’ve definitely stopped traveling with the reel-to-reel!

David Lynch plays a big role in your solo work, titled David Lynch Etudes – when did your particular love for Lynch spark?

It started in the late 80’s when I saw Blue Velvet. I was 13 when it came out in 1986 and I remember there was a lot of buzz around it. I didn’t get to see it until I was 16 or 17. I really didn’t now what to make of it – but I knew it looked amazing. I saw Eraserhead in 1991 at a film festival during my first year of university. I had never seen a film like this – I still haven’t. I didn’t get to see Twin Peaks until much later – actually maybe 10 years after it came out. I binge-watched the first season, and the series left me in awe at the way Lynch channels his connection with dream-states and “reality”.

My piece David Lynch Études is an homage to the idiosyncratic vision, style and imagination in Lynch’s work and demonstrates the impact his films have had on me as an artist. It’s also an interpretation and extension of elements in his films into musical material. A bit like composers in the past integrating poems and folk songs into their work. Mulholland Drive is my ‘folk song’. It’s not the musical soundtrack that’s manipulated and developed, but the Foley sounds and elements of the dialogue. For example, there’s an étude built around Diane’s shivering breathing when she sees Camilla for the first time after “the switch”. I transcribed it, created a rhythmic pattern with it and wrote a piano part overtop to colour it.

The obsessiveness, twisted subconscious, and alternate realities is what attracts me to Lynch’s work. This is something I’ve always been drawn to – even as a child – and has always been a part of the way I compose. Searching for alternate universes.

Your production is unconventional at the least – does surprising people drive you to create things even more unique than the last?

What drives me is looking for ways to express what I hear and see in music and art in a way that will connect me to the increasingly far flung audiences that are experiencing my work. I guess what intrigues me is how concert goers in different places around the world respond to what I am doing.

Can we expect a returning Nicole Lizée performance in the future? Do you have any projects lined up for 2017 you can share with us?

I’m actually about to start working on Karappo Okesutura Volume 3 (Volume 2 is featured in the Sydney Festival). These pieces are an ongoing collection of ‘karaoke nights’ – my interpretation of karaoke. I damage and manipulate karaoke tapes to create sporadic shifts in pitch, stuttering, tempo fluctuations; simulating a malfunctioning karaoke machine. A karaoke singer takes to the stage to perform a hit selection only to find that the song is twisted and distorted, but the singer stays in sync with the tape no matter what happens.

Everything is notated to keep everything in sync and allow the malfunction and the ensemble to coexist in spite of the evidence that the whole thing should be collapsing under the weight of its own chaos. Of course the ‘karaoke video’ is a large part of the karaoke experience and there are videos that I’ve created – also heavily damaged and glitched – to accompany these tracks.

So – as it turns out – Volume 3 will be a collection devoted to Australian karaoke. The plan is to have this ready in 2017.

Nicole Lizée performs with The Australian Art Orchestra on January 19th at the City Recital Hall as part of the 2017 Sydney Festival. More information here.


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